Last fall I went on a reconnaissance mission to my old high school. Mount Saint Joseph Academy, which sits majestically on a hill in West Hartford, Connecticut, has been through a few incarnations since I was in the last graduating class in 1978. For the past seven years it’s been an assisted living facility.
It knew it would be difficult to get my mother, who was equal parts beautiful and difficult when I was growing up, to relocate to a place where she had once wielded so much power over me. I was sure she’d react like the woman Tracy—who showed me around—had described. This woman was so overcome with memories of nuns at the Mount rapping her knuckles with their rulers that she refused to get out of the car to set foot in Hamilton Heights.
But the Mount is also a historical landmark and that means its exterior is preserved in perpetuity. It felt odder than odd to use the front entrance—something prohibited when I was a student there. Inside, the place was now decorated in false cheer. The nun’s quarters and student classrooms had been converted to small apartments. I had had English class in the model apartment I saw. How would my mother accommodate the glamorous wreckage of clothing and shoes that now bulge out of her walk-in closet in one of these little apartments?
The gym was now the Alzheimer’s unit.
Tracy said that people think the place is haunted. Door knobs suddenly jiggle, windows slam shut, elevators randomly open and close. My mother, who always opens doors as if she’s about to encounter a ghost on the other side, might feel at home.
As we stood at the entrance of another small room, Tracy asked me if I knew why it was called the Pope’s Room. I told her there used to be a chair, cordoned off with fancy braided ropes, bearing a plaque that Pope Pius XII had once sat there. On a winter afternoon during my senior year I snuck into the room, and —uniformed and knee-socked according to school code— did the most rebellious thing a Jewish girl, any girl, at Mount Saint Joseph Academy could do. I sat in the pope’s plush and eerily empty chair. I didn’t know yet about the Pope’s immoral silence during the Holocaust.
Two months after my visit to my old high school, my mother’s sons-in-law—my husband and my brother-in-law—brought her to the Mount. Sure enough, she refused to get out of the car. When she finally went inside, she refused the free lunch. She watched the men eat club sandwiches and thick slabs of chocolate cake. She consented to sip tea and eat saltines—the diet of a martyr.
“You wouldn’t have lasted a minute here today,” my husband texted me. I texted him back, asking how he was coping with my mother’s bad behavior? “She can’t push my buttons because she didn’t install them.”
I wanted to know if my husband saw the Pope’s room. Surprisingly, he reported the room was actually the highlight of the tour. My mother had a flicker of memory that I had been inducted into the National Honor Society in that room. Back in the car she ranted that she would rather be dead than end up in the old school gym. The guys brought her back to her house, my childhood home—ramshackle yet also sturdy like my mother who refuses to leave the place.